Early Transportation and Mail Service

Ancestry US

In 1848 a young Missourian by the name of Alexander Majors, who had been hauling freight on the Santa I* a trail, became so impressed with the future of the industry that he determined to go into it on a larger scale. W. H. Russell and Thomas Waddell, men who had also had some experience on the southern route, became his partners, and the company began business under the firm name of Russell, Majors & Waddell. The result was the organization of the biggest freighting company that the world has ever seen. In the zenith of its prosperity it employed about four thousand men and had six thousand wagons on the various transcontinental routes. A train consisted of from twenty to thirty wagons, and was under the general direction of the “wagon master,” whose subordinates, a teamster and assistant to each wagon, were called “bull whackers”. The men were paid a dollar a day and board, and so strong was the lure of the West that there was a rush for positions. Few of them returned with their trains, and most of the oxen and wagons were sold at the end of the outward journey.1

William Cody, who was later famous as “Buffalo Bill”, entered the employ of Mr. Majors in 1848, and a life-long friendship resulted. His first work was that of messenger boy between trains, a position calling for courage and resourcefulness because of the hostility of the Indians. His ability won the esteem of the older man, and he, in turn, had the greatest regard for Majors, whom he considered the leading spirit of the great business. In his old age Mr. Majors published a book called “Seventy Years on the Frontier”, the preface of which was written by Cody. Among other tributes to his friend he writes : “Alexander Majors never shirked a duty or failed to meet an obligation.” Strict rules were laid down for the employes, prohibiting the use of liquor and profanity, and although they may not always have been adhered to in the wild life of the frontier, yet there is no doubt that they had their influence in making this the safest, as well as the largest, company in operation. The fate of the first trip of this firm into Wyoming in 1856 when the government supplies for Johnson’s army were destroyed, has already been told. The next year a regular freight service to Salt Lake City was begun. The round trip starting from the Missouri took all summer. Across Uinta County the two roads were still traveled from Fort Bridger, the one to Fort Hall and the other to Salt Lake.

In 1851 two men known as Hockaday and Leggitt established a stage line to Salt Lake. It began on a monthly schedule, which was soon made semi-monthly. The driver cared for his own horses, and it took twenty-one days to make the trip out. The fare was one hundred and fifty dollars and passage had to be engaged months in advance. They made a specialty of mail and express.2

In 1858 Russell, Majors & Waddell bought out Leggett and Hockaday and put on a daily service. The trip from Atchison to Salt Lake was made in ten days. Stage stations equipped with horses and provisions were built about. twenty miles apart ; Millersville, named from Miller, a well-known stage driver ; Fort Bridger, Big Muddy and Bear River Crossing comprised those within the region we are studying. The company received from the government $400,000 a year for carrying mail.3 The vehicles were Concord coaches. They were swung on strong leather straps, and afforded as much comfort as possible on the long mountain journey. Hour after hour by night as well as day the passengers endured as best they could the rocking motion of the forward progress. At stations they would alight to stretch their cramped limbs, and eat meals of varying quality.

The stage driver was a high-salaried man for his time, receiving from $150 to $200 a month. He was autocrat of his realm, and many were the hairraising yarns of events on the road spun by them in later years. Jim Brumley, who “fingered the ribbons” for some ten years, was an adept in this art, and gloried in entertaining the guests at the eating house in Echo that he ran for many years after the railroad was built. One day he was telling a thrilling adventure to a party of “tenderfeet”, and described being chased from his stage by a band of Indians. He pictured himself, unarmed and separated from his companions, making his way at breakneck speed up a canyon, the yelling redskins gaining on him at every step. On either side rose precipitous cliffs hundreds of -feet high, and he found himself faced by a huge perpendicular rock. At this point of his narration he paused, and silently gazed at his breathless audience, one of whom tremblingly asked : “And what did you do?” His answer came with a gulp : “By, G-, they killed me!”

At the side of the driver sat a man with a sawed-off shotgun, and he bore the title of “guard”.

Before the year 186o half a million people had settled in the western territories. There was an earnest demand for quicker mail service and this resulted in the organization of the Pony Express. The idea had been conceived in 1854, by William Gwin, Senator from California, while he was making the overland journey on horseback. For several years it was at different times brought to the attention of Congress and the public, but no definite steps were taken until 1859, when W. H. Russell became interested, and made a contract for his company to carry the mail by horseback, from the terminus of the eastern telegraph lines at St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento. The route was that of the old stage line and covered nineteen hundred sixty miles. At an enormous expense one hundred ninety stations were equipped with horses to furnish fresh mounts for the riders, and with provisions. The old stage stations were utilized, and others built, so that the stopping places were about ten miles apart. The new stations within the limits of this work were Quakenasp Springs and Needle Rock. There were about five hundred horses in this work, animals chosen for speed and endurance. Eighty riders were employed at $125 a month and board. From either side of the light saddle hung two leather bags filled with sealed dispatches, many of which had been telegraphed from the east to the starting place on the Missouri. At first the rate was five dollars for the half ounce, but it was later reduced to one.4

On the third of April, r86o, the riders started from the two terminals with their valuable loads. On the fifth day, not far from Fort Bridger, their relays hailed each other from the saddles and galloped on. In ten days the trip was accomplished. This time was never exceeded, and was often cut by as much as twenty hours. The equipment was of the lightest possible, saddle, bridle and bags being limited to thirteen pounds, and the riders were chosen for their skill, courage and lightness of weight. They rode night and day, and were relieved every forty miles if all went well, but there are records of men being in the saddle twenty hours at a stretch. Only once was the mail lost, but there were many hair-breadth escapes, for the Indians cherished a deadly animosity toward these daring horsemen.

One of the very early settlers in Evanston was John Wade. If one may believe the story of his life as told by himself, it was one long adventure from the arrival of his father’s family at Salt Lake to its close. When a young man he was taken by Indians, and for three years was in captivity. When he finally made his escape he found his way with great difficulty to Salt Lake, where he appeared one night at his mother’s door, and, though nearly naked and greatly changed, he was recognized and taken in. Later he became a scout and roamed all over the Rockies. He entered the employ of the Pony Express, and at the time of Lincoln’s First Inaugural was the bearer of the message through this part of the country. There was a race between the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail in getting the news to California. He told of riding at breakneck speed from Fort Bridger to Bear River Crossing, where he expected to be relieved, but, owing to an accident to the rider stationed there, was disappointed. The station keeper tried to prevail on him to rest and eat, but time was too precious, and quickly changing mounts and snatching a piece of pie in his hand, he continued the journey. Though worn and weary when he reached Salt Lake, he had the satisfaction of finding that he had contributed to the success of the Oregon Trail messengers in the race. The time consumed in carrying this message was seven days and seventeen hours. Mr. Wade had a blacksmith shop in Evanston in the early ’70s and spent his old age on a ranch near Millburn, in the Bridger Valley, where he died in I920.

As a business venture the Pony Express was a failure, for the expense was terrific. 1861 was, as we have already seen, a bad year in the Indian country. Horses were run off, stations burned, and many a brave rider was shot from ambush. Even the usually peaceful Shoshones joined in the depredations, and in March, 1862, they made a concerted attack on the stations between the Platte and Bear River and captured every horse in the service. Stage passengers were not molested, but many were left in standing coaches from which the horses were taken. A negro who was cooking at one of the stations on the Sweetwater was killed, and three drivers who resisted the demands of the savages were wounded, but there were no other casualties.5 As United States military forces were engaged in the South, General Conner sent three hundred men out from Salt Lake to guard the line.6 This was known as the Mormon Battalion, and was under the command of Lot Smith.

As quickly as possible the new equipment was sent out and operations resumed, but it was a fatal blow to Russell, Majors & Waddell, the company that had done so much for the upbuilding of the West. They were obliged to sell out, the purchaser being Ben Holiday, proprietor of the stage line from Salt Lake to Sacramento, and he continued the daily stage service. Holiday received from the government $1,000,000 a year for carrying mail, but even that did not make the business pay, and in 1866 he sold to the Wells Fargo Company, who continued to run their stages up to the time of the regular trains on the Union Pacific.7

The Pony Express was abandoned in 1862 after sixteen months of activity. In the winter of 1860 Edward Creighton of Omaha came as far as Salt Lake by stage and traveled on horseback to Sacramento, to satisfy himself as to the advisability of building a telegraph line to connect with one that had already been constructed as far as Denver. His trip resulted in an agreement by which the California Telegraph Company contracted to build from Sacramento to meet a line to be built by the Western Union to Salt Lake. The government offered a subsidy of $40,000 a year to the company first to complete its work. Creighton’s men reached the goal on the 17th of October, 1861, and gained the bonus. just a week later the through line was completed, and the first message sent.8

The soldiers at Fort Bridger assisted the workmen in the building and later in the maintenance of the line. The Indians were very suspicious of the “talking wire” and cut down the telegraph poles at every opportunity. The course across the country is still to be traced by the broken stumps of poles running parallel to the old trail.

Descriptions of the trip across the country on the old road vary with the season of the year and the spirit of the writer. John F. Burton gives an interesting account of his arrival at Jack Robinson’s seven Indian lodges on the 23d of August, 186o. He tells of his kindly reception by the old mountaineer, and credits “Uncle Jack” with the possession of $75,000 and a numerous progeny.10 The fortune was undoubtedly exaggerated, as the tax roll of Uinta County of 1872 gives the assessed value of his property as $2,268. It is well known, too, that the little copperskinned youngsters playing around the tepees were not Uncle Jack’s offspring. Old settlers tell stories of designing Indians bringing to him captured children from other tribes with the demand that he buy them. A debate always followed, Uncle Jack protesting that he could not care for any more children, but the threat “You no buy, me kill”, and the raised tommyhawk over the head of the cowering child never failed to bring the bargain to an end, and the savage would ride off with the food, blanket or knife he had coveted, while the white man’s camp would be augmented by one more hungry mouth to feed.

Captain Burton describes the Bridger Valley stretching before them in all of its late summer beauty, luxurious pastures, slopes covered with wild flowers, mountain currants and hawthorns on every side. Of the people, too, he speaks in glowing terms, and dwells upon the courtly hospitality of judge Carter. Crossing to Bear River they passed several trains of Mormon emigrants, and he describes the valley as a veritable graveyard. It is a sad truth that many succumbed to the hardships of the long march at the very threshold of their promised land.

Leaving the fort by the Salt Lake road the traveler passed on the left a steep, flat-topped butte that had been left by the receding waters, for this region was at one time covered by the great Inland Sea. About eighteen miles farther on a sharp descent led to the Big Muddy, where there was a stage station kept for many years by a Frenchman by the name of Baptiste. J. H. Beadle, who made the trip by stage in the summer of i868, gives the following description of the onward journey : “From here through a region of bright red rocks often capped by white clay, and frequent groves of pine, firs and quakenasps, we went up the grassy slope to Coperas Springs, and on to Quakenasp Hill. The altitude at the summit is nearly 8,000 feet. A sharp descent leads down to Sulphur Creek at the foot of a mountain called by the trappers `Rim Base’, because it is the eastern wall of the great inland basin, the waters of which flow into Salt Lake. Seams of coal crop out from the hillsides to the north, and about a mile to the south is Tar Spring.” Mr. Beadle mentions a dug way down the steep grade from Quakenasp Hill.10

The pretty view of the Bear River Valley, with its luxuriant grass and fine native trees, never fails to excite the admiration of travelers. From 1861 the station at the crossing of Bear River was kept by John Myers, and it is described as the very best station on the road. The meadows during the summer months were often dotted with the outfits of emigrants who stopped there for rest before entering on the last hard climb over the Wasatch Range.

  1. Majors, “Seventy Years on the Frontier.”
  2. Inman, “The Great Salt Lake Trail.”
  3. Ibid.
  4. Mary E Pack, “U. P. Magazine for October, 1923
  5. “History of Wyoming,” Coutant.
  6. History of Utah,” Whitney.
  7. Hebard, “Pathbreakers from Racer to ocean.”
  8. Inman, “The Great Salt Lake Trail.”
  9. Barton, “The City of the Saints
  10. Beadle, Editor of Salt Lake Reporter from 1869 to 1871.
Ancestry US

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